Photomatix HDR Workflow

I’ve recently been having an increasing number of conversations on G+ with people who are new to processes such as HDR and wanted some tips and tricks. When I first became interested in HDR Someone was good enough to share their knowledge with me so I thought it was a perfect time to “pass it on”. As a result I will be putting together a few short tutorials on a few photographic techniques, starting with this one: HDR, Using Photomatix.

There are several very good HDR / Tone mapping packages available, I picked Photomatix because I like the interface and results, that’s not to say other packages are not as good, they are but I prefer Photomatix.

HDR Workflow

Select Images

I tend to use Adobe Bridge for selecting images, note I shoot in RAW almost exclusively and use a tripod for HDR work. Here I have selected 5 RAW files, although the minimum required is 3. I normally shoot at 1EV steps and will take up to 9 RAW’s depending on the light variance and camera histogram.

Import to Photomatix

Import and set Preprocessing values

I drag and drop my selected files into Photomatix, here you are faced with a couple of preprocessing options and the chance to specify EV values if you have multiple files with the same value. As you can see from the screenshot, you have the ability to select deghosting (manual or automatic), great for windy days and where movement may occur in the image. You can also automatically align images and crop them to match each other, set colour temperature and reduce Chromatic Aberrations and  noise.


Use the mouse to draw a selection around ghosted areas

If you chose to manually deghost the image (if not why not?) you will be presented with the screen above. The process is simple, use your mouse, tablet pointer etc. to draw around the ghosted areas, as you can see I have selected areas to correspond to the foliage in the foreground and the clouds. Push the Preview Deghosting button to check the effect.

Preview Deghosting Selection

When in preview you can hit the Return to Selection button to add more areas if needed.

Deghosting completed

When happy with the deghosting hit the OK button to proceed.

Tone Mapping

Tone Map

Hit the button arrowed and the RAW files will be merged by magical pixel pixies into an image ready for Tone Mapping. This is the fun part where the RAW files are analysed and tweaked to produce something approximate to the final image. At this point you will see progress bars on the screen as the images are being processed and combined.

Tone Mapping

Select Tone Mapping Process

Now the fun starts, along the bottom or side of the screen you are faced with a series of Tone Mapping presets, these are a great starting point and you can select each in turn to see the effect it has. different presets work best on different scenes and to achieve different moods, but as I say they are a starting point. Here I have selected Enhancer Painterly which tends to give a medium amount of processing leaning a little towards grunge.

Also worth noting the pop out Histogram box, I use this all the time to assess how the changes affect the image.

Fine Tune

Fine Tune the Settings

As I said above, consider the presets as a start point, the circled control sliders at the left now provide a myriad of options to fine tune the image. You can adjust pretty much any aspect from Saturation & Vibrance to the various lighting effects. Some of the controls I use a lot are Micro Smoothing, white point and detail contrast. Using a combination of these tends to give a more natural looking image whith whites staying white not turning grey, a little POP to the colours and reduction of halos around bright areas. When you are happy with the result, save the file, using File>Save gives the option to save in various formats (I opt for TIFF) and also to automatically export the image to a photo editing suite (in this case Photoshop). It should also be noted that you can save Tone Mapping settings which will be applied as a start point on the next image (great for doing batches taken under the same conditions).

Final Tweaks

Adjusting Levels in CS6

Once in Photoshop I tend to make some basic adjustments such as Levels (it’s that histogram again) and localised highlight and shadow control. Dependant on the subject and my mood I may also make some adjustments to sharpness and blur or perhaps tweak saturation or blend in a layer or 2 taken from the initial RAW files.

The Finished Article

Abandoned House


28 responses to “Photomatix HDR Workflow

  1. Nice write-up on your HDR workflow. Pretty similar to mine. The differences are that I start in Lightroom and export the RAW files as high quality JPGs. I do this because Photomatix’s first step in their process is to convert the RAWs to JPGs (according to Trey Ratcliff). By exporting in Lightroom, I control all aspects of the JPG quality. The resulting JPGs are loaded into Photomatix. From there, our process is like you have described. The other difference is when I go to Photoshop. I load the tone-mapped file and the other 5 JPGs as layers. I do this as there are always some part of the photos that have small problems (e.g. clouds too dark) and use the brush tool to blend in better parts of the images from the JPG until I am happy with the tone-mapped image. I then apply some third party filters and other adjustments.

    • Thanks Len, I don’t tend to use lightroom much apart from batch operations where I find it works well. I do sometimes import the RAWs to layer blend with the tone mapped image, depends on what I’m getting

  2. Never tried HDR, yet. But every time I read a bit more about it, in a tutorial like this, I edge a little closer to trying out. Thanks for such a good article.

  3. Great How-to write-up, Chris. This is very similar to my technique excepting, like Len, I always start from Lightroom. I like to have control over the creation of the JPEGs and that the tone-mapped output from Photomatix is always re-imported to Lightroom to sit with the initial brackets in my catalog.

    • Thanks Scott. It came about from a conversation from G+ where I was asked if I had done a tutorial, I hadn’t so thought I ought to rustle one up pretty sharp.

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  5. Just trying to get into HDR. I hate the “glow” between outlines like trees or foodtops and the sky. How can I avoid that effect? I don’t see it in your images. Thanks.

    • Hi Martha, the glow you describe is caused by over processing the image at the tone mapping stage. You don’t say which software package you are using, if it is Photomatix avoid the Grunge and painterly presets and this will prevent glow or Halos.
      That said I tend to use the painterly as a start point a lot of the time. The trick is as follows: about half way down the fine tuning controls on the left is a tick box for “lighting effects” tick this and you can then select between Natural + and grunge, I tend to use Natural or Natural +, this will remove a lot of the halos, also a combination of micro smoothing and white balance helps.
      The method varies from image to image and dependant on package used, with photomatix you can also select tool tips which will explain the use of each slider when you hover the mouse over them.
      With packages such as NIK HDR effex there is a wider selection of presets ranging from Heavy to natural processing, again selecting the closest preset then fine tuning with sliders gives the required result.
      Hope that helps and feel free to ask more questions if you wish

      • OK. Thanks for the amswer. I do use photomatix. I have only used it about four or five times so far. Def. need to learn more.

      • Practice is definitely the way. I should also mention that there is a tick box on the pre selection panel that allows the creation of a merged image before tone mapping. You can save this image then use it to male several different tone mapped images. It speeds up the process a bit as it cuts out the early stages.

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  7. Thanks for this dude, I love a good urbex but my photography and post production is in infant stages. Good of you to share! @bellaquinna

    • My pleasure. When I first got into UE I asked for advice on HDR. Andre Govia was kind enough to help me out and I want to pay it forward.
      What I did find was that a lot of people in UE have the same style in HDR shots, dark & moody with a touch of gothic horror. I love this style and much respect to the guys that do it but I like to tread a slightly different path

    • Thanks Erik, appreciate you taking the time to comment. There are a lot of in depth guides but I wanted to try and pitch this somewhere in the middle

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